Commentary | On the subject of GA reform

Without the GA, who benefits?

Political language, goes one of Orwell’s most famous quotes, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Three questions to always ask are: who benefits, what narrative are they trying to spin, and what are they trying conceal?

Consider the completely random example of the General Assembly. According to SSMU President Zach Newburgh’s narrative, the GA is broken, students want direct democracy, and those who are attempting to maintain the existence of the GA as it stands are somehow content with the status quo (either no substantive debate, or wild debates about geopolitical issues).  The solution he put forward with two other executives, and a councillor provides a new forum, the Annual General Meeting (AGM), with a limited agenda and no legislative impact, along with the capacity for students to introduce motions themselves at student council. It also deletes several pages of by-laws, which include things like speaking rights and procedure.

Take out your copybooks, and follow along as we break down what all of this actually means.

The General Assembly is broken

SSMU politicos like to say this. It’s snappy and concise, so it’s an ideal catch phrase for anyone trying to tokenize a complex issue. It’s true the GA as it stands is not working – the problem is that this fact is being used as a reason in and of itself to totally abolish it.

This point also misses the corollary that the GA is broken because SSMU councillors and executives made it that way. SSMU has to educate students on what the GA is and the kind of power it gives to them, and do a lot more than motion writing workshops, because at the end of the day, the GA is really just a set of rules and procedures (some of them arcane, it’s true). To have a genuine forum of constructive political debate on campus, you have to build your base and create conditions conducive to its success.

Students want direct democracy

Again, this declarative statement is true, and it’s being used to address the very genuine concern that the GA isn’t representational.

The real joke is that this argument is being used to centralize and restrict debate. Somehow we are expected to believe that having an AGM with four available topics of discussion, a referendum (which we already have), and no guarantee of speaking rights at council (even if students present motions), we’re expanding democracy.

Supporting the GA is supporting the status quo

I think very few people support the GA “as it stands,” because as it stands the executive and councillors don’t promote it, the rules are totally unintelligible to anyone not in Model UN, and the motion writing workshops aren’t promoted.

What’s more important though, is that the GA as it stands has one important thing no one seems to want to talk about (and would be completely removed): Strike GA’s. In 2005 SSMU participated in a province-wide strike to protest tuition increases, and in 2012 it will likely find itself in the same position. SSMU is supposed to be committed to accessible education, and participating in this strike could be an important expression of that ideal. Even if you don’t agree with free education, or prefer increases in student aid, there are many reasons to participate in this debate, not least of all out of solidarity with our francophone counterparts.

It’s true you could have a strike referendum question, as you could have many other questions significant to student life listed in a multiple choice format.  But these kinds of events – and democracy in general – are about more than clicking a button.

Erin Hale is a U3 Philosophy student and a former Daily editor. Write her at erin.hale@mail.mcgill.ca.


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